At Spingarn High School, the massive, tan brick edifice across from an electric power plant off Benning Road in Northeast, labs are antiquated, materials in short supply. Windows are falling out and the ceilings falling down. Spingarm often gets the students rejected by other Northeast schools, Woodson and McKinley, and sends only about 25 percent of its seniors to college.

But this week Spingarn got a much needed shot in the arm. Two of its students took the top awards in the annual contest for high school graphics sponsored by the National Museum of American Art. The students, Karen Nichols, who won first prize, and Michael Monroe, who won the Director's Award, were selected over 257 other students from both private and public schools in the area. Their works went on display at the museum yesterday.

In a system that has been accused of preoccupation with its slow learners at the expense of gifted and talented students, Karen and Michael are two examples of gifted students who did not fall through the cracks, said Spingarn principal Clemmie H. Strayborn, an energetic young administrator.

Both Karen and Michael got their first formal training in art in a D.C. public schools classroom. But their love of form and color stems back to their childhood, their homes and their neighborhood in Northeast.

As a child, Karen was struck by bright colors and the angles of the tall doors in her home on Anacostia Road and soon took to drawing these and other objects of her day-to-day world in Crayola crayon. Michael liked comic books, especially those about monsters and space. At age 11, he drew his own comic book about a space invasion.

In many ways, their childhoods come through in the works that won them their awards. Michael's brightly colored etching has an abstract, spaceage quality to it. The work has several freakish-looking figures interlaced in its colorful and varied designs. Karen's award-winning print is the scene of life on two street corners in a city, inspired by the street corner where she lives.

Michael, 17, a senior, is a soft spoken youth who often comes to school in a shirt and tie. His six-foot frame makes him look more like a basketball star than an award-winning artist. Michael says he "thought art was just something in a comic book" until he enrolled in Ruth Siegel's Art II class at Spingarn his sophomore year. "I didn't understand the intellectual aspects of it . . . . I didn't know how to express myself, how to use the materials to express feelings that were always inside of me," he said.

At home, Michael's parents discouraged him from thinking about a career in art. His father, a printer by trade, thought his son would be much better off learning some more practical -- and more lucrative -- craft like printing.

But Siegel prevailed. A teacher, she said, "just couldn't miss talent like that. Look what he can do with a piece of chalk," she said, displaying a boxful of tiny pieces of blackboard chalk on which Michael had carved little faces and figures. He had also painted and glazed the chalk with glue to give it a shiny, ceramic-like quality.

At Spingarn, Michael has learned graphics, silk screenbing and sculpture as well as painting and drawing. He particularly likes working with prints and collages, which often have a social statement to them. One of his prints, which will also be on display at the museum, draws attention to the city's high rate of teen-age pregnancy. It shows a young girl, pregnant, sucking her thumb. He calls the work "Urban Statement."

He has done a collage that shows a line-up of clean-cut young men labeled "KKK members 1981." The collage also pictures a baby's head without a body, a Col. Sanders chicken advertisement, and a black man with blue eyes. Michael said the work is about "racial tension -- the way some white men try to make [black people] white inside."

Karen's preference is not for the social statement, but the still life. "I like to do still lifes because you have a model, you set it up on a table, you organize it and you make a picture," explains Karen, who answers every questions about her work with a wide smile.

Karen, 17, a junior, is constantly doodling, sketching the teacher when a class gets boring, drawing the other students in the cafeteria during lunch period. "I can't help it, it's a habit," she explains, again flashing her smile. She said she never expected to win first prize because she "figured there was so many people out there who could do better than I did."

One of eight children, Karen said she spends much of her time drawing portraits of family members, which she then offers as gifts.

Both Karen and Michael want to work in art. Michael wants to be a freelance artist or work with a comic book company. Karen would like to paint, but sayd, "I'll probably have to become a commerical artist."

Siegel says she is apprehensive for them. Neither Michael nor Karen has outstanding grades in their academic subjects. In her 13 years of teaching, Siegel said she has seen several outstanding art students, but ony one went on to college. "And even then, without athletics, he wouldn't have gotten into Catholic University," she said. "There's always something that seems to get in their way."

But Michael has been accepted to Howard University and plans to major in art. Museum of American Art officials hope to enroll Karen next semester in their high school intern program so that she can do graphics with professional artists and work with other officials of the art world.

Meanwhile, Michael's father, Charles F. Monroe, says he's going to get his son some training in off-set printing -- "justa as a backup."